Rohingya humanitarian crisis: Asean’s shame


It is to our collective shame that we have allowed this crisis to engulf us in the very year that Asean is supposed to set up its much touted Asean Community.

First of all, how did this crisis happen?

Aliran president Dr Francis Loh traces the roots of the exodus from Burma/Myanmar. There have been four rounds of exodus. Read his prescient Aliran article ‘The Rohingya: Who are they? Why are they in Malaysia?’ written in January.

There is only one simple solution to the problem: Myanmar should resolve the stateless status of the Rohingya by granting them citizenship. Asean can play a role by pressuring the Myanmar government in this direction. Meanwhile, Asean member nations must accept the Rohingya and provide them a safe haven until their stateless situation is resolved.

All this while, the Rohingya have fallen prey to ruthless traffickers in the region, who somehow are able to operate with impunity. How many traffickers have been caught and hauled to court in Asean member countries?

The Rohingya have complained that they are sometimes victims of extortion in Malaysia. Now we can see these extortion complaints reported in the media. The Rohingya have also been held while their captors demand ransom payments from their families back home.

Mass graves have been discovered in south Thailand, and cases of torture and killings have been reported in The Guardian. Now, there are also reported allegations (in the Malay Mail) that graves can also be found on the Malaysian side.

At times, the Rohingya have been sold as slave labour to fishing trawlers plying the region. The working conditions on board these fishing trawlers are horrible, even hellish. One Rohingya was reported as saying:

“I have been detained six times in Malaysia and sent back to Thailand. Each journey has been bitter.

“In 1995, I was detained and sent back to Thailand after a few months.

“Once I was released, I was immediately sold to a group of fishermen.

“Those were the worst two years of my life. Don’t ask me about them.

“I go crazy just thinking about that time,” he said.

Last year, The Guardian reported that seafood sold by major US, UK and other European retailers had come from boats off Thailand using slave labour. In 2002, I wrote a piece for IPS highlighting the harsh working conditions on the fishing trawlers in the region (see below).

Remember, 90 per cent of the fish consumed in Penang is imported via Thailand. So are we complicit in the exploitation of almost slave labour?

This was the piece I wrote for IPS in February 2002 about the working conditions aboard these fishing boats.

Fishing boat workers in Msia battle exploitation

Rugged-looking and tanned from exposure to the tropical sun, Pepe (not his real name) and his friends speak in a surprisingly gentle tone about the woes that come with their jobs as fishing boat workers.

While on shore leave here in Penang, waiting for their next assignment on the next fishing boat to call, these Filipino workers rue how some boat owners and agents rake in fat commissions off their wages.

But beneath the workers’ congeniality, their resentment is palpable.”Our (Malaysian) agent’s wife used to drive an old car,” observes Pepe.”Now she has a Mercedes.”

In a situation where foreign migrant workers are often without a voice, some boat owners and agents who supply them with labour have thrived on their vulnerability, apparently skimming off handsome profits from the workers’ hard-earned wages.

Along the way, the workers are left feeling exploited and resentful.

As Pepe speaks, his half a dozen friends sitting next to him, all fishing boat workers  some of them legal, some illegal  nod their heads in agreement. Most of them appear to have low-self esteem, and seem ashamed of their humble jobs.

They are among more than 200 Filipino fishing boat workers who use Penang as a transit base in fishing trips around the region that take them near Burma, Indonesia, Thailand and further out to Sri Lanka and Guam.

Taiwanese interests manage the boats but the employment agents here are Malaysian. There are also Thai and Taiwanese agents in their respective countries, say the workers.

Apart from Filipinos, many Indonesians, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese also toil on these Taiwanese fishing boats in resource-rich seas across Asia.

Tough business

It’s a major industry. The fish catch consists mainly of tuna, which is exported to Japan and Taiwan, and the speared-jaw blue marlin is a prize catch. The boats also track down all kinds of shark, which are sold in Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.

Pepe and his friends say the usual practice is for the boat captain to pay the agents RM1,100-RM1,200 monthly for each worker employed. A Malaysian agent also confirms this figure in an interview with IPS.

But the workers say the agent pays them only RM650-RM850 each in monthly wages, an amount that correspondents with the rate given by the employment agent, who requested anonymity.

”The agents hardly have to bear any expenses,” says a Penang-based migrant worker activist. ”They are just getting richer.”

But the agent disputes this, saying ”it’s a tough business” because the payments they get from Taiwanese boat owners also get deducted. He adds that the commission is quite small.

Pepe says the captain himself usually pays the workers directly an additional RM200-RM300 monthly, depending on the nature of their work on board.

Occasionally, a worker’s wages may be held back. When this happens, he does not know who is responsible as the captain and the agent sometimes pass the buck, blaming each other for the non-payment.

But despite these problems, there is no shortage of workers willing to take up this difficult and sometimes dangerous job.

Work permits

”They have no other choice. They don’t have any jobs at home and they cannot earn that amount in the Philippines. They don’t have a choice but to grab these fishing jobs,” says activist Ophel Low, a volunteer with the Penang Support Group, which works with foreign migrant workers.

To improve the situation, Low suggests that fishing boat workers be given full work permits that clearly allow them to work in Malaysia. At present, many of them hold their passports and landing passes.

Right now, they have no status to complain about their agents, who are Malaysian. If they complain, the agents can send them back,” she adds.

So many workers take these jobs on, with many staying away from the Philippines for two to three years, and others for long as far as 10 years.

Many of those who have been away from home for long spells are those who have abandoned their families in the Philippines, or have girlfriends, usually other Filipino workers as well, on shore here.

The fishing workers face other work hazards, including accidents or illnesses – not all of them are covered by insurance.

Isko, a thin, crew-cut Filipino in his 20s, recalls how his colleague, 27-year-old Ely Baltazar from Cavite province, went missing on Nov18 when their boat docked in Burma. ‘

‘He was a bit high on alcohol, but not drunk, when he stepped ashore,” recalls Isko. ”He never returned.”

Isko claims the boat captain had to pay the authorities in Burma a hefty “fine” so that they could leave the country without the missing crew member.

”Ely had two months’ salary due to him and his family badly needs this money now, but there has been no reaction from the agent,” he says. ”His mother is grief-stricken.”

Health benefits

Falling ill during an expedition is not a pleasant affair, with limited medical supplies on board the boats.

The agent interviewed by IPS says that the workers employed legally from the Philippines have personal accident insurance. But for those who are illegals, ”not all agents buy insurance for them”, he added.

The workers say that because many are not entitled to any medical or health benefits or accident insurance, they bring along their own antibiotics and aspirin when they board the boats.

Pepe recalls how one worker got sick and died at sea in 1999. In another case, a fishing worker on the boat was only sent back to land on board another passing vessel when he was already very ill and shivering.

”The local agent didn’t seem to bother when he arrived on shore and was sent to hospital,” recalls Low.

Shipowners are supposed to have responsibility for covering their workers, ”but no one wants to talk about this”, the Malaysian agent explains. ”Nobody dares to touch this issue (of uninsured workers).”

Meagre diet

Low also cited cases of abuse, such as one that involved a migrant worker who alleged that his agent had hit him with a wooden block after he declined to work as a cook on a boat, because of breathing problems.

On board some of these boats, the diet is meagre, say the workers. They survive on a bowl of rice and a little meat once a day, hardly enough for the type of work they are doing.

The workers claim they are not entitled to sick leave or paid vacations, or overtime pay.

When they go back home to the Philippines on leave, their wages are cut for the next six months to pay for the air tickets. A return ticket may cost around RM1,400 ringgit but the wage deductions total RM1,500 to RM2,000, grumble the workers.

Their agents even earn a tidy commission when renewing the workers’ passports, charging them RM480 for each renewal.

”I can do it for them for RM275 ringgit including postage and bank draft charges,” says the Penang Support Group’s Low. (IPS)

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Those rich Arab nations in OIC should help their Muslim brothers and take Rohingas as citizens.


President Thein Sein of Myanmar has signed into law the Population Control Health Care Bill, to require mothers to have their children at least three years apart. Nominally, the purpose of the bill is to “protect women’s health,” but opponents say that it is designed to target Rohingya Muslims.

I think the parents there should practise birth control if they have no means to bring up the children properly and neglect the children to be exploited as child labour.

gk ong

IGP Khalid wanted 7000 Rohingya (could be Bangla in disguise?) refugees be placed in Penang. Could this be a prelude to another Projek IC? Penangites should nervous.

ajith v

Projek IC in Penang is part of Najib’s Rancangan Malaysia Ke11? Highly probable.

gk ong

It has been a source of cheap illegal workforce in Malaysian plantation and estate for sometime, thus more will want to come here, as fake ICs could be arranged later. They could also easily enter Malaysia at the Thai border, but via boat could gamble on permanent residence status as arranged by trafickers.

There are many illegals from Mynmar working at a famous resort at Balik Pulau.


Take a left-turn hike up the hills after half-way circling clockwise the Air Itam Dam & continue downward road before coming to the 2nd bridge. It leads up to the vege-farms on the way to Sg Pinang + Titi Kerawang waterfall. You will be surprised to mistaken these farms as Little Vientiane-Indonesian farms. Almost all of the farm workers are foreigners which sometimes give one a feeling of uneasiness. I once hiked up these hills with camo-backpack, hiking poles & sporting a crew cut hairstyle. These foreigners upon seeing my presence gave a suspicious & menacing look. I wonder what… Read more »


It is more like a Myanmar Village than a Hakka Village for the resort you mentioned at Balik Pulau.


Would expelling Burma solve the problem. In fact it would aggravate the situation with more coming in. Its not the Rohingya that are fleeing the country. Many Burmese are running away. You see them almost everywhere here. In fact many of the Rohinga (actually bangla) are paying to come here. Why… Its very simple. Economic sense. Our country is stable and propserous but then the people tend to take for granted the peace and prosperity they enjoy and got taken in by the rhetoric of the opposition. Anyway we cannot afford to take in these people. There are far too… Read more »


This should enlighten you

Why taking in the Rohingya refugees is a terrible idea — Sebastian Loh

ajith v

A high percentage of these refugees are not Rohingya but Bangla. They made short trip from southern Thailand after gathered there for shipment from the traffickers. The graves found in southern Thailand and Perlis are proofs.


When there is a humanitarian crisis such as refugees, greed shows its ugly faces among the businesses of maxi-profiteering. Such is the way of mankind, we are rightly called extreme animals. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many cases of cheap & inhumane labor practises in the housing & agro industries in Penang, KL, Cameron Highlands & JB. Who would care anyway? It all boils down to one thing – checks, enforcement & labor laws & punitive punishments. And also no to corruption. The affairs of holding hostage illegals & refugees at the Thai-Malaysian borders are nothing new as… Read more »

Phua Kai Lit

Expel Myanmar/Burma from ASEAN if they continue to persecute
the Rohingyas, and brazenly ignore
world opinion — like how the Nazis persecuted the German Jews.

If this fails to work, pressure the foreign companies to divest from the
Myanmar/Burma economy.